What Can We Do To Help American Women Nurse Their Babies?

When I went to a friend’s birthday party a few weeks ago there was a mom there bottle feeding her 3-month-old. At my 10-year-old daughter’s gymnastics meet last Saturday I saw two tiny twins being bottle fed.

It makes me sad to see such small babies being fed formula from bottles.

A new study by researchers at Harvard Medical School, published April 5th in Pediatrics, “The Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding in the United States: A Pediatric Cost Analysis,” concluded that the United States would save over $13 billion a year and prevent more than 900 infant deaths if American women would simply comply with the medical recommendation to breastfeed for the first six months.

When my mother was having my three older brothers and me, the nurses in the hospital were surprised that she wanted to nurse us. They thought she was crazy and she should just give us formula. But my mother insisted. She’s a biologist. She knew the best thing for calves was cow milk, the best thing for sheep was ewe milk and the best thing for humans was human milk. She nursed two of my brothers and me until we were four months old and she nursed my second oldest brother until he was six months old, hand expressing milk after she was hospitalized for appendicitis when Jeremy was a newborn.

I know breastfeeding can be hard. With my oldest my unconditioned nipples cracked and bled. It was so painful at first that I cried when she latched on. Then there was the engorgement. My breasts were as hard and as big as boulders when my milk came in a few days after she was born. But little by little we both got the hang of it. I learned to put my pinkie in her mouth to pop her off so she wouldn’t chomp on my nipples with her gums. She learned to open her mouth wide to latch on. The cracks healed. I nursed through two subsequent pregnancies and when she finally weaned she was four years old and we were both ready.

I nursed my second daughter through a painful yeast infection that refused to respond to any of the recommended treatments. She and I decided she would wean when she turned three, four months after her baby brother was born. Though nursing him at first was easy, when he was about a year old I got another yeast infection. My nipple cracked so badly I could separate it from my breast. Nothing worked. Not gentian violet. Not nystatin. But finally a lactation consultant suggested grapefruit seed extract: I was to drink it three times a day and apply it in a solution of one drop of grapefruit seed extract in five drops of water after every nursing. Within two days the infection–and the shooting pains it caused–was gone. Etani nursed past his fourth birthday also.

Unlike when I was growing up, most people in the medical establishment recognize how important breastfeeding is for the health of newborns and the health of the mother.

Yet the study concluded that U.S. breastfeeding rates are “suboptimal.”

Though the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that women breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life and continue to nurse for “the first year and beyond, as long as mutually desirable for the mother and child,” a little less than 75 percent of mothers in the United States breastfeed their babies at birth. What is even sadder, only 32 percent of those moms are breastfeeding exclusively by the time the baby is three months old.

That means that the majority of three month old infants in America, babies who are too young to sit up by themselves, are no longer breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding is the best choice for so many reasons. It enhances a baby’s immune system, giving the infant antibodies, enzymes, and even entire immune cells to ward off infection. Breast-fed babies don’t have nearly as many lung, ear, and urinary tract infections. They don’t have diarrhea. Their poop doesn’t smell bad. They aren’t ingesting soy proteins or cow milk proteins. They have far fewer allergies than bottle-fed babies. And they aren’t being exposed to other harmful substances in formula, like residual pesticides and chemical additives.

Breast-fed babies don’t die as often as bottle-fed babies.

The study’s authors specify that bottle-fed babies are much more likely to die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC, a disease seen primarily in preterm infants), and lower respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia.

And breastfeeding makes babies smarter. According to Lise Eliot, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Chicago Medical School, and author of What’s Going On In There: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, the single most important thing you can do to help your baby’s brain is breastfeed. Eliot writes: “…human milk specifically benefits a baby’s brain development … breast-fed babies are actually smarter than bottle-fed children” (184 her emphasis).

If a woman doesn’t breastfeed is it her fault? I don’t think so. Not everyone can breastfeed. And few new moms have the support they need to keep nursing when breastfeeding gets difficult. Sadly, we live in a society that in so many ways does not support new moms and dads.

This is a social problem not an individual problem. American hospitals should not be allowed to give formula samples to new moms, for one thing. American women should get at least one year of paid maternity leave so they can continue to breastfeed, for another. We should help women who can’t nurse by giving them breast milk for their babies instead of formula. Women who can’t nurse should not be made to feel badly or feel guilty but they should be able to get human milk for their human child. Lactating moms could even help each other by nursing each other’s babies.

What do you think? How can we help more women nurse their babies? Why do you think almost 25 percent of American women don’t even try to nurse and so many more stop so soon? Do you/did you nurse your infant? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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